Light Memories (Modernity, Photography and Mass Production)

By Suhail Malik, 10 September 1997

Suhail Malik reads between Beatriz Colomina's 'Privacy and Publicity' and Eduardo Cadava's 'Words of Light' to identify an accurate genealogy for the part memory, representation and light play in constructing human experience today - in the age of mass media.

If we now consider ourselves as being at the end of an era of modernity consitituted through certain industrial processes, configurations of capitalism, organisations of sexual and racial-ethnic differences, and machinic - specifically, mechanical - apparatuses and operations, then this conglomeration (whose coherence we are moving out from) is likewise held to be the era of representation. At least, modernity defined through such a Euro-American expansionism is an age organised through representation, and the recent developments in techno-science, post-structuralist and post-modern critical theory, art and literature have each in their own way presented important challenges to that alleged domination. However, the pivotal moment in the history of modern representation - and so what must be a central issue for its critique - is without doubt the invention and mass popularisation of photography. This historical transformation, which also transforms history (as what and how the past and the present are apprehended), is taken up in these terms perhaps most famously by Walter Benjamin in his cultural analyses from the 1930s, at the height of photography's own expansionist reign over representation. Not by chance, it was also the decade of mass fascism in Europe, a movement which principally organised itself politically and ¾sthetically through the various media of mass representation.

Both Beatriz Colomina's Privacy and Publicity and Eduardo Cadava's Words of Light attempt to draw on Benjamin's work to weigh up what photography has meant and means for us today, at a time when it seems that its dominance and definition as an optical-chemical veridical technics is about to pass away in favour of the electronic image. (This passage - which is not a death - is itself well known as photography's crisis of indexicality, an ¾sthetic-political panic and production inaugurated by digital image processing.) Though these two books both consider what photography itself invented for modern Euro-American culture, they do so with varied degrees of success. Moreover, and importantly, their respective merits in thinking about photography is (perhaps symptomatically) in direct inverse relation to their explicit theoretical groundings. In other words, the more critical-theoretically explicit the project (namely, Cadava's), the less successfully does it comprehend photography's invention.

This is a serious matter: it remarks very well the fixity of our current (post-'68) theoretical-reflective critiques in the face of contemporary technical re-organisations of culture, experience and life. The problem here is not just Cadava's: it is an immobility and disavowal which was also clearly evident at the recent major conference in London on 'Time & the Image', which gathered together many of the major names in today's critical theory.

Whilst Privacy and Publicity marks out its primarily historical analysis, exposing as it does the formative power of modern mass media and photography on Le Corbusier and Alfred Loos, two major modernist architects in the opening decades of the Twentieth Century, Cadava's book on the other hand is nostalgic. Written like Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" in fragmentary 'snapshots' so as to capture something of the 'shock' of the instantaneous photograph, Words of Light rightly makes claims for its thematic concerns with a view to today's transformations of the image. Its opening pages note the importance of technically organised memory, archives, light and the speed of their capture and processing: "history now names a movement of potentially boundless transmission that enables us to see what is happening everywhere in the world. To say that it is both constituted and effaced through the images that compose this movement means that the transmission of information in the form of photographs and film simultaneously leads us both toward and away from history. (xxvii)

This double movement is the main thesis of Cadava's book, and it speaks directly of representation. The modern transmission of information through photographs and film (and just as importantly, though Cadava does not mention it, the process of half-toning which allows the photograph to be printed and presented in conjunction with written journalism) 'leads us' towards history in that it shows the historical happening by representing it at another time and place. But this operation at once removes the historical happening from us, leads us away from it, in that it is seen only through the representation. It displaces the real, the historical event, as it shows it.

This is our experience of the world as it is necessarily presented to us by the media. As Cadava puts it (commenting on Kracauer): "the flood or blizzard of photographs 'betrays an indifference towards what the things mean' and thereby reveals the historical blinding or amnesia at the heart of photographic technicalisation". The relevance of this 'blinding' for a culture of electronic imaging need hardly be emphasised. Cadava recognises it too: "what is at stake here are the questions of artificial memory and of the modern forms of archivisation, which today affect, with a speed and dimension that have no common measure with those of the past, every aspect of our relation to the world." (xviii)

One wonders why then, if today's speeds and artifices have no "common measure" with the past, it is photography which should be the main focus of the book. The answer is partly given in Cadava's next sentence: "The phrase obliges us to rethink what links these processes of technological reproduction to our so-called psychical and interior memory". Again, this cannot be doubted: it is exactly what needs to be considered if the technical-human complex of memory is to be taken up in its complexity, i.e., without putting technics or technology on one side and the human on the other.

However, in Cadava's hands this ambition amounts to little more than platitudinous hand-wringing. This because despite its claims to the contrary Cadava's meditation foresakes the complexity of memory. This is clearest at its point of resolution towards the end of the book. In its penultimate 'snapshot', the double movement of representation culminates with Benjamin's suggestion that, removed at once from the scene it captures as it presents it, "the photograph É is the corpse of an experience", a "suspension of reality". Cadava argues that a photograph "speaks as death, as the trace of what passes into history" (128) even as it presents the historical event. The conclusion is that "the photograph É at once opens the possibility of our being in time". With Cadava, then, photography belongs to a past that allows for all that may happen in human time, i.e., to a past before history. In other words, photography is of the absolute past of human experience. However, if this collapses the simple opposition between internal and external memories, the sort of pious deconstruction Cadava follows and advocates here does so at the cost of also giving up the fact of photography, precisely that it is a technics of representation which has been invented. Cadava thus severs the analysis from the transformation in history and experience inaugurated by and since photographic menemotechnics, i.e., by and since a certain stage of mass industrial modernity. All of which is also a way of holding on to photography and refusing the possibility of reflecting upon its contemporary transformation and what that might involve for history as a relation to the past, for the massification of culture and, not least, for human temporality.

Beatriz Colomina's Privacy and Publicity is also concerned with photographic deconstruction of an opposition between insides and outsides. The places and boundaries put into movement in this book are not just those of the human being itself but also her/his living space, rooms, buildings and, again, memory. However, whilst also drawing on Benjamin as a theoretical basis Colomina limits the theoretical endeavour of the book to the effects of the mass media in the working methods, plans and buildings of Le Corbusier and Loos. The central issue is the alteration introduced into the notion and actuality of privacy or private spaces by the early expansion of the mass media, an expansion to which photography was integral. Moreover, it does not just concern the move within architecture to modernism but also architecture's own modernity: "modern architecture becomes 'modern' not simply by using glass, steel, or reinforced concrete, as is usually understood, but precisely by engaging with the [then] new mechanical equipment of the mass media: photography, film, advertising, publicity, publications, and so on." (73) And, as Colomina says around this extract, modern war too.

As Colomina points out, this displacement is inaugurated by the mass media, by the telecommunication technologies which introduce the voice, image and knowledge of the 'outside' into the 'inside' of the home, disturbing the dichotomy between the interior and the exterior.

The displacement of the site of architecture from the building (site) to its reproduction and representation implicates the displacing of the private into the public: 'the modern transformation of the house produces a space defined by the walls of (moving) images. This is the space of the media, of publicity. [...] It no longer has so much to do with a public space, in the traditional sense of a public forum. [...] Privacy is now what exceeds the eyes' (7-8).

This is clearly not just a historical concern. What it says is that if the transformation in notions of personal identity and its modern politics founded upon the clear demarcation between public and private is today under scrutiny, then these displacements are concomitant to those of where architecture takes place. In other words, the displacement of the private (space) is not only or even principally an issue of surveillance technologies. Rather (and more interestingly), it is central to the 'virtualisation' of architecture today, a technical move necessitated as much by costs, time, planning, speed and reduction of labour costs - i.e., by industrial capital - as by ease and visual modelling exigencies.

Architecture's move into modernity through the paraphernalia of its public media(tion), undertaken most notably by Le Corbusier's advocacy of the International Style, is increasingly consummated by those 'publishing' and mass media conduits becoming primary to the architectural process. As Colomina stresses, this process is not new: it is the condition for architecture's modernist Internationalisation. It is also evidenced not only by public competitions and their surrounding dramas but, more importantly to the operations of architecture, also where contemporary architectural processes are designed through public/communication media in the first instance, as happens today over the internet. Architecture is made through and as a mass media. Its walls, materials, it weight disappears in this overtaking advance of mechanical possibilities, of paper, film, publicity, electricity and light. And with that the clear definitions of the inside and the outside of a building and of architecture itself, of the individual and the mass, are put into movement. In other words, it changes everything of architecture.

However, the problem with both Colomina's argument is that like Cadava's book it is far too concerned with consolidating a now well formed deconstruction between interiority and exteriority without risking anything of that legitimating framework of their own readings. However, despite their common reliance upon Benjamin, their coherence, and their respective theoretical timidity there is nonetheless an argument to be had between these books. What they may suggest is that rather than looking to photographic representation, its complications and critiques for a genealogy of the electronic image, it may be that the more interesting and relevant mode of high modernity for comprehending the emergence, power and necessity for today's technical transformations to representation, light, memory and so human experience, is to be found in the quasi- and generalised technics of modern mass mediated architecture. The precedent for considering the effects of today's electronic-digital transfigurations isn't then so directly to do with any incident in photography but to do rather with the public/general technics of the International Style. Colomina shows this technics to be more than its material architecture. But equally, what must be made clear is that the fate of that movement and what is happening today cannot be the same, if only because the former relied upon and took place when photographic massification was as certain as Benjamin presumed it to be. It is this certainty that is undermined by a generalised architecture.

Suhail Malik <> writes fiction, journalism and essays about technoculture.

Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media, Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: MIT Press, 1996

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